The elephant in the room: A case for free expression

25 04 2013

Articulation and argumentation are not everyone’s forte, but at some level, expression is. If there is any area where the idea of equality can be pursued both in words and spirit with no ifs and buts (I do not mean to say that equality is meaningless in other areas), it is in expression- of ideas, emotions and information. But more often we hear self-proclaimed pundits to ordinary people paying eulogies to “freedom of expression” with the cliché ‘I’m all for free expression, but not hurting other people‘. If you ask me, those are in deed nice sounding words, but may I also add, thoroughly inconsistent and utterly stupid!

In fact, most self-identified supporters of free expression sitting on a but, are not even arguing for it. They are arguing for a case of “freedom of inoffensive expression”- the freedom to express things that we generally agree up on. Some people might defend that position by a play of semantics. They define legitimate free expression as every form that we can, at the very least, agree to disagree up on. But is that, really a freedom? These grand narratives surrounding the topic has obfuscated the issue so much that the debates are condemned to be beating around the bushes. In this context, I would like to imagine myself as taking the stand of that little kid on the street shouting, emperor has no clothes, dangerous though it is.

The case for inoffensive expression

The often argued case for limited expression, or freedom for inoffensive expression, is based on consequential logic. Expressions, be it speech, art, writing, video or Internet based, can and every often do, lead to conflicts. Fake informations, biased perspectives, religious blasphemy, artistic critiques or eroticism, are hot beds for provoking violent action. Some variety can cause real and tangible harm for individuals. Slander is a versatile tool for tarnishing the reputation of an individual. Therefore, it is better to censor expression which can fall into these category, is the logic employed here. In most democratic countries there is a well defined judicial procedure for appealing against such censorships and more often they involve more than one person and level. Hence, the right for “legitimate” expression can be safeguarded. This narrative also appeals to the fact that not all people are rational, and therefore the society at large should not have to bear the brunt, because people may not be able to rationally engage with each other on controversial issues or points where they disagree.

The case seems to be a solid one. At least, I too shared the same opinion for a long time. But then what is the problem?

Even at a cursory analysis, we find historical contradictions to the argument that ‘legitimate’ expression can and will be preserved. How often have we found legitimate expressions being trampled and even penalised by death, in questions of slavery, caste based oppression, religious critique, women’s rights, to the extend of telling that earth is not the centre of the universe. Democratic or not, societies by and large are conservative when it comes to accepting new ideas. The legitimacy of expressions are most often judged from the prevailing conservative stand point of a society. An idea that should be clear even for a  no-brainer , that  marital rape should be penalised, is a matter of joke for most of the honourable parliamentarians. Consider a more controversial critique, this time of the Government.  Perhaps about the Indian state itself. How logical is it to expect the very agents of state to make a fair judgement about its legitimacy? That would be,  if I borrow the usage of Sir Humphrey Applebee from the Yes Minister, like giving a bottle of whisky to an alcoholic.

In cases where courts have held up freedom of speech, expression and conscience, and the higher courts in India most often have, they based it on a constitutional principle and not by assessing the quality of the expression. This precedent should be firmly established by taking away the judgemental aspect altogether. This principle need to applied in amending the draconian provisions in the article 66(A) of the Indian IT act.

Limited freedom of expression, goes against the progress of societies. When certain ideas are taboo, whether or not people are rational, it does no good to anybody. What societies should strive is to encourage that maturity to deal with various expressions. Blanket bans and censorships are never the way forward. For instance, a homophobic man (which unfortunately includes the majority of Indians) might find the expression of gay sexuality vulgar and unacceptable. The orthodox bullies within every religion would like to ban it. Is that a sufficient reason to limit the freedom of expression of the gay community?

Every novel idea, every artistic expression that tries to engage with its audience and every bit of concealed truth are blasphemous entities for some people or other. Hence questions are raised about teaching evolution, M. F. Hussain’s painting and Aseem Trivedi’s cartoon, Arundhati Roy’s opinion on Kashmir and Wikileaks, and they should be. But whatever one’s opinion regarding these are, the alternative possibility of censoring these will only drag us back to the Dark ages.

What about the real or potential harm caused by spreading lies?

The pre-eminent British Parliamentarian and the first editor of Manchester guardian (the present ‘Guardian’ newspaper) C. P. Scott had these famous words to offer on the question of media ethics:

“Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”

This statement applies to more than mass media. In fact, any public expression can be challenged based on the veracity of the facts it presents. Spreading wrong information deliberately can be effectively challenged and penalised, by individuals or groups including Government, with the current laws itself. If a newspaper can be charged for publishing wrong information, so can an individual be. The case of “misuse of free expression” is over stated, and even if they happen pre-emptive bans cannot be justified. In fact, we have seen instances when the unfortunate provision of pre-emptive bans was effectively used by people who think beyond to silence criticism.

I hate, ‘hate speech’. It could get people killed!

So do I, and some of them have the potential to kill. Unfortunately that is not a sufficient ground to ban it. i.e. we can only punish real crimes, not potential crimes .

How do we decide whether something is hateful or an opinion, not necessarily right, based on certain facts or experiences? What makes a person shouting “I hate America” in India passable, while somebody with a placard “I hate Hindus” unacceptable? What makes Bal Thackarey’s editorial in Samna about “Hindus not being vigorous enough” during the 1992 riots inoffensive for a majority, while Abdul Nassar Madani’s alleged “call for arms” unacceptable? We, like all establishments, have double standards in deciding what is hateful and what is not. It does not surprise me, although it does sadden me, that such biases exist for neutrality over emotionally charged issues are rare, if not non-existent. What can certainly be done is maintaining a principled position that every person will have to bear the consequence of his or her public expression. If a call for arms can be linked to a riot, and police need to be prepared for it, the person has to be charged for abetting violence and murder. Call for violence, whether the reason be xenophobia, casteism, ethnic divide, religious bigotry, ideological schism or personal vendetta, has to be charged at the point of action like any other crimes or else we end up in the same situation described in the famous Spielberg film Minority report.

I’m hurt!

I’m sure you did. But, you know what, deal with it! There is no right to remain unoffended. There are millions of issues up on which every single individual is going to hurt others by expressing one’s opinion. A cartoon might hurt Mamta Bannerjee, challenging his Gujarat story might hurt Modi, Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasrin, M. F. Hussain, Nikos Kazantzakis or Sanal Edamaraku might ‘hurt’ many faithful and so on and so forth. I could even argue that “religion” hurts me. Does that give me a right to call for ban on news about poojas in temple, the azaan call or the notice of Sunday mass in a church?

The case for free expression is the proverbial elephant in the room. Everybody can see that, but certain cultural, religious or ideological upbringings make most people argue against it. It has to be noted that in countries like USA, the first amendment act is considered as one of the most important constitutional safeguards. Despite strong provisions to protect free speech, most European countries and America do not have riots over free expressions, to the extend we have in India. In a Christian majority country, the piss Christ is tolerated (as in not legally persecuted) and that is a sign of maturity and not cultural inferiority as some of our-great-culture ideologues project it as. I would like to end with the concluding remarks from Salman Rushdie’s speech at India Conclave 2012.

“The human being, let’s remember, is essentially a language animal. We are a creature which has always used language to express our most profound feelings and we are nothing without our language. The attempt to silence our tongue is not only censorship. It’s also an existential crime about the kind of species that we are.

We are a species which requires to speak, and we must not be silenced. Language itself is a liberty and please, do not let the battle for this liberty be lost.”

Entry for The Colloquium Blogjam

Advertisements

Actions

Information

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




%d bloggers like this: